On Nov. 2, Proposition 19, which would’ve effectively legalized recreational pot smoking in California, failed at the polls statewide. But it won in Long Beach, with the support of 53.5 percent of voters. Nearly 73 percent of city residents also approved a related municipal ballot measure that sought to tax all marijuana sales in the city. That proposal arose after the City Council passed an ordinance on March 20 allowing residents to form cannabis clubs—but Long Beach officials have yet to issue a permit to a single collective.
The city’s position is that marijuana is illegal under federal law—no surprise there. But a pair of disabled medical-marijuana patients is using that same argument in seeking to force the city to scrap its ordinance regulating cannabis clubs. According to the lawsuit scheduled for a Feb. 8, 2011, hearing in Los Angeles County Superior Court, Ryan Pack was seriously injured in a car crash, and Anthony Gayle suffers from renal failure and other ailments.
Just why would Pack and Gayle bring up that marijuana is illegal under federal law to further their own aims of smoking pot legally? Neither patient was available for comment, but according to the pair’s Mission Viejo-based attorney, Matthew Pappas, his clients have no choice given Long Beach’s marijuana ordinance has so far prohibited them from exercising their right to smoke cannabis under state law.
“California can only decriminalize marijuana,” Pappas says. “California cannot regulate federal law. Some cities have passed ordinances that are reasonable and are designed to help patients, but in Long Beach, it was designed to shut down all patient cooperatives.” The lawsuit by Pappas’ clients highlights the fact that during a debate over the proposed ordinance back in February, then-Long Beach City Councilwoman Tonia Reyes Uranga referred to it as “pretty much a sham.”
That debate itself came on the heels of a pair of heated public hearings that followed a massive series of raids the Long Beach police carried out against marijuana clubs on Dec. 17, 2009. Seventeen separate clubs were targeted that day, with 15 people arrested on felony charges of distributing marijuana. At a Feb. 2 hearing before the City Council, one of those arrested, Katherine Hamel, blasted city officials for terrorizing legitimate cannabis patients. “I am here to question why 20 uniformed Long Beach officers busted down our doors, pointed guns at my head and my friend’s head, handcuffed us and took us to jail,” Hamel said then. “Why are you using all these resources, all this money and police force, to do this to us?”
After a stream of similar complaints, the council passed the March 20 ordinance, allowing cannabis clubs to pay a $15,000 non-refundable application fee to receive a city permit that would allow them to operate legally. Long Beach Assistant City Attorney Michael Mais says applicants had to demonstrate that they were at least 1,500 feet away from any high school; 1,000 feet from a kindergarten, elementary, middle or junior-high school; and at least 1,000 feet away from any other cannabis club.
“Back when the ordinance was passed, we had maybe 60 or 70 [clubs] operating without any type of permit,” Mais says. “We had a vetting process, and on Sept. 20, we had a lottery.” That lottery involved two bingo-style ping-pong-ball machines that used compressed air to bounce the balls—each silk-screened with a series of letters and numbers corresponding to cannabis clubs hoping to win a permit. The only problem: None of the balls fit inside the machine, so the lottery was a disaster.
“We had one of those technical glitches,” Mais says. “The machines cost two grand each, and when we realized it wouldn’t work, people cried foul, but it was very fair.”
Instead of using the machines, the city auditor simply dumped the balls into a recycling bin and pulled ones out by hand. A total of 37 clubs was chosen to receive permits.
But Mais concedes that none of those clubs, all of which had paid the fee, has yet received a city permit. Instead, the city chose to add new restrictions to its ordinance. Mais explains he has just finished re-drafting the ordinance to present to the City Council on Dec. 14. If the amendment passes, any cannabis club hoping to operate in Long Beach will have to show that it is also at least 1,000 feet from any city park. Clubs will also need to show they have video surveillance outside their stores, agree to operate only between the hours of 9 a.m. and 7 p.m., and provide all of their financial documents to the city for annual inspection.
Meanwhile, according to Pappas, police have continued to harass his clients and the cannabis clubs they belong to, including 1 AM Natural Solutions on Fourth Street. A police spokesperson declined to comment for this story, but Pappas’ lawsuit states that a “police officer came to the collective” and “told the collective to shut down and warned that if it did not, he would come back and arrest everyone there. The collective was shut down based on this threat.”
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“Tens of thousands of patients in Long Beach do not have access to their medication because Long Beach hasn’t issued a single permit to a patient group,” Pappas argues. “The city isn’t trying to create legislation that helps patients, but rather to close all patient collectives in the city.” Pappas adds that he doesn’t personally use marijuana. “But if a person I care about is stricken with cancer, glaucoma, AIDS or a serious disability, that person should not be worrying about city laws that are really designed to close patient groups. . . . Right now—at this very moment—there are patients with cancer or other serious diseases who are facing death.”
This article appeared in print as "Blunt Force: Long Beach pot activists sue the city to dismantle its onerous cannabis- collective ordinance."